EWI founder Marga Fripp, a native of Romania, immigrated to the United States in 2001, leaving behind a career in journalism and the non-profit organization she founded, the Association for the Promotion of Women Romania (APoWeR). Although Marga was banned from broadcast journalism for her critique of Romania’s social policy, through APoWeR she successfully petitioned legislation against domestic violence, and created economic opportunities for thousands of domestic violence survivors.
After immigrating to the United States, Marga experienced firsthand the common plight of other immigrant and refugee women and their families. Even though she was highly accomplished in her home country and an integral and influential member of her professional and civic communities, now in the United States she struggled to establish a new life. Her background as someone from a different part of the world was suddenly a detriment, and she had to overcome language and cultural barriers and prejudices about her capabilities. She found herself isolated and struggling to find work opportunities, integrate, and fully participate in the American economy and culture.
While taking English courses at a local community college, Montgomery College Takoma Park, MD, Marga discovered a group of other isolated yet talented and educated immigrant women who had very few venues to meet with other like-minded women, and limited knowledge in translating previous careers in their native countries into success in the American culture. Marga interviewed many of these women and learned about their inspiring life stories, experiences, and skills they brought with them to the United States. She realized that many of them needed an outlet for self-expression and support. To address this void, and drawing on her past experiences empowering women in need, in 2002, Marga created Empowered Women International (EWI) as a network of support and cultural exchange for immigrant and refugee women.
Initially, EWI started offering a series of empowerment workshops that assisted immigrant women in assessing their skills and in creating life and career plans, and provided an opportunity for women to connect and share their stories. Marga discovered that the women exhibited strong entrepreneurial instincts as they discussed how they might build careers in the United States. In addition, many of the women found that art and creative outlets were a powerful way to express themselves and their cultural backgrounds and reclaim a sense of who they were.
Marga opened a rent-subsidized space, provided by EWI supporters in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, to showcase the cultural contributions of recent immigrants, such as cuisine, crafts, art, and clothing. This was a space where women could meet, display their creative works, tell their stories, and hold receptions and performing arts events. She received an overwhelming response to her gallery and suddenly had a huge demand for her gallery space.
Marga learned that there were many recent immigrants in this area who were established artists and artisans in their home countries but did not know how to get into American venues and markets. Marga realized that these culturally diverse artists and artisans comprised an underserved community with a wealth of undiscovered talents in the fine arts. This multicultural arts space brought together the families and friends of the artists as well as the general public. Visitors to the gallery started to inquire about purchasing the items on display.
It was clear that there was a market for the work of these artists and artisans, yet most of them had no knowledge of how to start a business based on their creative and cultural assets, how to market that business, and how to access local networks and arts communities in order to advance their careers. Marga realized that she could enrich the cultural experiences of her community while simultaneously helping these women use their art as a means to many ends – self-employment and economic gain as well as community participation and integration.
In 2005, with collaboration between artists, community volunteers and EWI staff, the Entrepreneur Training for Success (TFS) program was formalized. In a very short period of time, EWI became recognized as a beacon for immigrant and refugee women artists and artisans looking to develop careers and businesses in the arts and creative industries.
Today EWI sponsors and participates in many art presenting activities each year, frequently highlighting new and undiscovered artists and artisans. Through these activities, EWI continues to expand and diversify the cultural experiences available in the greater Washington DC area.
Artists and artisans affiliated with EWI have gone on to exhibit, perform, and sell their creative works at prestigious organizations such as the Kennedy Center and the Strathmore Center. EWI-made jewelry and fashion accessories are sold at Whole Foods Market in Annapolis, MD, under the EWI label. EWI graduates generate income that helps support their families. They also teach art and multicultural programs in schools and give back to their communities by volunteering with community organizations and serving as mentors to others.
EWI truly transforms lives. Through the power of the arts and the celebration of cultural diversity and richness, EWI helps women who are recent immigrants overcome the obstacles to integrating to life in the United States and become engaged and productive members of society, to the benefit of both themselves and their new communities.